Below is my column in The Hill on the release of a new Disinformation Index by a group partially funded by the Biden Administration. Gabe Kaminsky at the Washington Examiner previously ran a story on the Index. The Index appears heavily biased against conservative or libertarian sites. I previously discussed the bizarre inclusion of a legal analysis site of conservative and libertarian law professors. It is easy to dismiss such transparently flawed work, but this is an effort to target advertisers and to justify a type of cancel campaign. It is also part of a more comprehensive effort by the Administration to censor or isolate certain views or groups in the public debate. [N.B.: After this column ran, the National Endowment for Democracy wrote to inform me that it had decided to stop funding the Global Disinformation Index].
Here is the column:
Last year, the Biden administration caved to public outcry and disbanded its infamous Disinformation Governance Board under its “Disinformation Nanny,” Nina Jankowicz. Yet, as explored in a recent hearing (in which I testified), the Biden Administration never told the public about a far larger censorship effort involving an estimated 80 FBI agents secretly targeting citizens and groups for disinformation.
Now it appears that the administration also was partially funding an “index” to warn advertisers to avoid what the index deemed to be dangerous disinformation sites. It turns out that all ten of the “riskiest” sites identified by the Global Disinformation Index are popular with conservatives, libertarians and independents.
The index, run by a British organization, appears to be an effort to score and sanction sites based on their “reliability” to those in the political and media establishments.
That sounds like a knockoff of China’s “social credit” system which scores its citizens, based in part on social media monitoring.
Clearly, the Administration never abandoned its intent to fund and field efforts to curtail speech on the internet — with the support of many in the media and academia. In an Atlantic article in 2020, for example, Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith and University of Arizona law professor Andrew Keane Woods declared that “in the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong.” They concluded that “significant monitoring and speech control are inevitable components of a mature and flourishing internet, and governments must play a large role in these practices to ensure that the internet is compatible with society norms and values.”
Despite fierce opposition from Democrats in Congress, Twitter continues to release evidence of a comprehensive effort by FBI agents to coordinate the banning or suspensions of people accused of disinformation, including people who were clearly joking.
The Global Disinformation Index (GDI) is a particularly insidious part of that effort. Funded in part by $330 million from the U.S. State Department through the National Endowment for Democracy (which contributes to GDI’s budget), the GDI was designed to steer advertisers and subscribers away from “risky” sites which it says pose “reputational and brand risk” and to help companies avoid “financially supporting disinformation online.”
GDI warned advertisers that these sites could damage their reputations and brands: the New York Post, Reason, Real Clear Politics, the Daily Wire, The Blaze, One America News Network, The Federalist, Newsmax, the American Spectator, and the American Conservative.
The inclusion of Reason was particularly glaring; the site regularly posts legal analysis from conservative and libertarian scholars. With the diminishing number of such academics on university faculties, Reason is a relative rarity in offering a different take on legal cases and issues. GDI incorrectly claimed the site offers “no information regarding authorship attribution.” It also said Reason lacks “pre-publication fact-checking or post-publication corrections processes, or policies to prevent disinformation in its comments section.”
There is a reason why Reason does not have policies posted on the removal of disinformation: It opposes content moderation policies of groups like GDI on free-speech grounds and disinformation “processes” used to limit free speech.
However, that is the point in this and other disinformation efforts: “Disinformation” appears based on what GDI and the Biden administration believe to be the truth. That may explain why some of the most biased sites on the political left are given higher rankings by the index.
While claiming that the conservative sites lacked transparency, GDI is fairly opaque on its own conclusions and standards. The explanations for tagging those sites are riddled with subjective, ambiguous terms. For example, GDI includes RealClearPolitics due to what GDI considers “biased and sensational language” while heralding sites like HuffPost as among the most trustworthy.
GDI further says that RealClearPolitics “lacked clear and diverse sources.” Yet HuffPost and Mother Jones — both of which rate highly on the index — have a range of diversity that runs from the left to the far left.
In discouraging advertisers from supporting the New York Post, the GDI declares that “content sampled from the Post frequently displayed bias, sensationalism and clickbait, which carries the risk of misleading the site’s reader.” Yet the GDI’s self-appointed monitors of disinformation make no effort to explain what constitutes “clickbait” or “sensationalism” by the Post in comparison to favored sites like HuffPost.
Indeed, GDI’s definition of “disinformation” is heavily laden with subjective terms. including any site that GDI views as offering “adversarial narratives.” Disinformation can include anything that is “financially or ideologically motivated” … “foster[s] long-term social, political or economic conflict” or simply creates “a risk of harm by undermining trust in science or targeting at-risk individuals or institutions.” Under that definition, the Gutenberg Bible might be flagged by some skeptics as disinformation.
Last year, GDI’s cofounder and executive director, Daniel Rogers, wrote an op-ed for Time magazine calling for government intervention to change the “rules that govern the manipulation of our information environment in order to prevent another nihilistic narcissist gaining power.” That includes not just Donald Trump but “someone like” him who lies “outright solely to further their own immediate interests.” Rogers does not explain how the federal government will be barring candidates who might otherwise be elected. He also called for liability for social media companies for any postings linked to a reader or viewer becoming radicalized and violent.
The funding of GDI, and the FBI’s censorship efforts, are consistent with President Biden’s pronounced anti-free-speech policies since taking office in 2021. The president previously asked “how do people know the truth” if social media companies did not control what they could read or hear on these platforms.
The full range of such efforts by the Biden administration is still unclear. What is clear is that the government is working to censor and harass sites with opposing views on subjects ranging from the pandemic to climate change to elections. This includes efforts to deter others from supporting these sites through advertising revenue. The financial viability of these sites could depend on the GDI’s good-citizen score.
Congress should ban the use of federal funds from such anti-free speech grants and programs. The first step, however, is to force the transparency that is being opposed by so many politicians and pundits. That should include any prior such efforts by the Trump or Obama administrations; the public can handle the truth of finding out if our government has been in the business of speech control. Otherwise, we may have succeeded in ridding the government of the “Mary Poppins of Disinformation” but not of her underlying philosophy.
At least the original Mary Poppins was open and warned her wards: “First of all, I would like to make one thing clear: I never explain anything.”
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at The George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.
NB: After this column ran, NED wrote me to emphasize that it is not directed by the Administration in how to spend this money.